Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer. His latest book, Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War will be published by Little, Brown on 1 May 2014.
Taylor will give the Churchill Lecture at the Churchill War Rooms on Tuesday 29 April 2014 at 7pm on the topic ‘Churchill and the "Boffins" of the First World War’. For details and how to book click here.
So much writing on the First World War concentrates on the trenches and the fighting on the Western Front. That is understandable. The terrible stories of suffering and loss, in which so many died for so little gain, reach out to everyone who has an interest in war. But there is another side to the war that hardly ever gets a look in. This is the subject of my new book, Secret Warriors. It is the story of the scientists who made a little known contribution to many aspects of the fighting. In the next war these men were given the affectionate nickname of ‘boffins’. Although that word was never used in the First World War, the ‘boffins’ in that conflict played an important role, too.
Firstly, consider aviation. In 1914 aviation was only just beyond its infancy and flying was still a seat-of-the-pants type activity. Engines generated little more than 100 horsepower and most aircraft could only stay airborne for 40 or 50 minutes. The dramatic progress in the science of aeronautics during the war meant that by 1918 some aircraft could draw on 1500 horsepower engines, could carry a heavy bomb load and stay airborne for up to 17 hours. The armed services possessed 272 aircraft in 1914. By 1918, the RAF had over 22,000 machines. The First World War created the modern aviation industry and Britain would become a major player for the next hundred years.
Before the war British diplomats did not spy on other governments as it was believed that ‘gentlemen did not read each other’s mail’. This was transformed by the First World War when the Admiralty set up a sophisticated listening service to intercept German naval and diplomatic signals, and a brilliant code breaking centre to decipher the intercepts known simply as ‘Room 40’. The work done here anticipated the more famous code breaking carried out at Bletchley Park in the Second World War.
In medicine, the war saw dramatic advances in the spread of blood transfusions, the development of antiseptics and in general standards of sanitation and hygiene. Casualty Clearing Stations with modern operating theatres helped to keep a higher proportion of wounded men alive than in any previous war. A surgeon before the war would be considered an expert if he had carried out a hundred operations in his specialism. The team led by Sir Harold Gillies, the pioneer in facial reconstruction work, carried out surgery on 11,000 victims during the war making huge advances in understanding the science of plastic surgery. In psychology and in the use of propaganda huge strides were also made.
Of course not all the scientific developments were benign. The race between the chemists on both sides to develop ever more lethal poisonous gases gave birth to the development of chemical weapons.
Much of the research for Secret Warriors was carried out at IWM. The Documents Department has important military records and original letters and diaries and the Film Archive and Art Department contain copies of the marvelous film and art works created to promote the war effort.
Overall, it’s about time that the role played by the ‘boffins’ of First World War achieved a more central place in our understanding of the war.